The scene near Ichigaya, Tokyo, following the bombing of Tokyo, May 9-10, 1945.

The scene near Ichigaya, Tokyo, following the bombing of Tokyo, May 9-10, 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

TOKYO – The names of 62 American prisoners of war killed in the bombing of Tokyo during World War II were read aloud for the first time, along with those of other bombing victims, at a memorial event earlier this month.

The March 9 memorial, now in its third year at The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage museum, falls on the anniversary of the Tokyo firebombing March 9-10, 1945.

That night, 279 low-flying B-29 Superfortress bombers dropped 1,665 tons of incendiaries on the city, at the time thick with wood-and-paper structures. The resulting loss of life, estimated as high as 100,000 deaths, exceeded the individual tolls of U.S. bombings at Dresden, Germany, and at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The American prisoners, however, died in a Shibuya-ward military prison during a subsequent bombing raid on May 25, 1945, according to the event organizers.

The American POWs fought for Japan’s enemy, but their families grieve for them, just the same, said Setusko Kawai, a member of the memorial’s organizing committee who lost her mother and two young brothers in the raid.

“They are children of someone, and they have families that grieve over their death,” she told Stars and Stripes by phone on Tuesday. “Their nationality or their position doesn’t matter.”

The POWs were victims of mass murder perpetrated by their own countrymen, said Ken Arimitsu, a committee member who helped add the U.S. names to the memorial reading.

“It shows that war is atrocious and irrational. That’s also the message we need to tell” by adding the American POWs to the list, he said.

The ceremony remembers the victims by having volunteers read their names aloud.

“It’s not just the reading of names but reading the names so we can imagine that they were one human being and relate to them as individuals,” Kawai said. “By reading the names, we hope to convey the misery of war and that it takes away people’s lives.”

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government keeps a list of the bombing victims at a memorial hall in Sumida ward, but it is not publicly available, according to Kawai.

Although she had added her mother and brothers’ names to the list, she felt they deserved more respect and recognition. Then she learned of a commemoration to read aloud the names of victims and began one for the air raid victims in 2021.

During this year’s ceremony, 40 participants ranging from high school students to a 90-year-old read the names of 1,928 victims who were listed on public records or whose families agreed to have them included.

The names of Korean victims killed in the bombing were added last year, Kawai said.

The organizers hope to add more names to the list and have more people participate as readers.

Kawai said she hopes that a monument like Cornerstone of Peace in Okinawa, inscribed with the names of over 200,000 people killed on Okinawa during the war, is built for the Tokyo air raids, so their families can see the victims’ names and know that they truly lived.

“There were many that became orphans, and they were unable to build a tomb,” she said, “which means that they don’t have a place to go and offer their prayers.”

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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